There was a time in the recent collective memory of St. Louis when residents and tourists alike would have easily been forgiven for overlooking the main branch of the public library. What was once a glowing structure contributing to the urban visage had become veiled in soot and ceased to shine. While the lights were never turned off, it was no longer the kind of intellectual beacon that once defined this distinguished 1912 Carnegie Library.
In keeping with the decline of the building exterior, the once elegant interiors had given way to a warren of small rooms cramped with stacks and starved for light. What was once grand had evolved into something unkempt, even shabby. Slowly, and without intent, the interiors were altered until they featured little of the architectural acrobatics that were so prominent when this Cass Gilbert-designed library opened.
Jim Balogh / St. Louis Public Library (left, center); Brian Newman (right)
Worse still, the building no longer effectively served the population. Help was overdue. The 185,000-square-foot library closed its doors in 2010 until late last year when it re-emerged wholly reformed. Over the course of a $70 million dollar renovation project, Cannon Design cleared rooms and removed floors, taking many spaces down to bearing walls and little else. Original details and ornament were carefully relocated and painstakingly cleaned and restored.
The effort to disassemble the interior of the building was daunting and labor intensive, but the result is nothing short of transformative. Ultimately, the architects restructured library programming to meet the needs of contemporary visitors and, with the assistance of compact shelving strategies, doubled the space available to the public.
The south entrance hall remains traditional and purposefully defers to original finishes. The space features a dense grid of marble-clad columns holding up a vaulted ceiling adorned with elaborately wrought details and murals. A coffered gold ceiling, intricately carved original décor, and enormous arched windows define the Main Reading Room, which is the physical and intellectual heart of the library as well as the point from which all other rooms radiate.
Individual collections are kept in modern rooms that clearly speak to their constituencies. In the lower level, the areas designated for children and teenagers are bright, vibrant, and offer large images from popular books on the walls and unconventional furniture that encourages lounging or climbing. On the upper floor, there are ample seating areas with contemporary furniture for individual research or collaborative work. The bookshelves are contemporary, spare, and literally glow.
Along the northern edge of the building, an area previously used as book storage was gutted, leaving a dramatic three-story void. What was once exclusively utilitarian space was deftly transformed into an elegant entrance court featuring a floating staircase and refined material palette of dark wood, anodized metals, and bright splashes of orange graphics that complement the original white glazed brick and large, slender windows. This refined court offers a well-appointed cafe and open computer workstations. Similarly, in what was a basement coal repository there is now a 250-person auditorium.
No longer defined solely by its collection, or formerly dingy appearance, the library invites people to visit and—perhaps more importantly—to stay.